‘Bakhmut is surrounded,’ declares Putin’s war chief
Russian troops and mercenaries rained artillery on the last access routes to the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut yesterday, bringing Moscow closer to its first major victory in several months after the bloodiest fighting of the war.
The head of Russia’s Wagner Group private army, speaking in a video recorded some four miles north of Bakhmut, said the city, which has been blasted to ruins, was now almost completely surrounded with only one road still open for Ukraine’s troops.
Intense Russian shelling of routes leading out of Bakhmut appeared aimed at blocking Ukrainian forces’ access in and out of the city. Ukrainian soldiers were working to repair damaged roads and more troops were heading towards the frontline in a sign that Ukraine was not yet ready to give up. To the west, Ukrainians were digging new trenches for defensive positions.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited Bakhmut for briefings with local commanders. Victory in Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of about 70,000, would give Russia the first major prize of a costly winter offensive and a stepping stone to capturing the surrounding Donbas region. Ukraine says the city has little intrinsic strategic value but that the huge losses there could determine the course of the war. It recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022 but its forces have now been on the defensive for three months.
“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut,” Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said, appearing in combat uniform. “Only one route (out) is left. The pincers are closing.” He called on president Volodymyr Zelensky to order a retreat from Bakhmut to save his soldiers’ lives. The camera panned to show three captured Ukrainians – a greybearded older man and two boys – asking to be allowed to go home.
The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit in Bakhmut, Robert Brovdi, said in a video posted on social media that his unit had been ordered to withdraw immediately. He said he had been
fighting there for 110 days. Both sides say they have inflicted devastating losses in Bakhmut. Kyiv has said its forces are still holding out there while acknowledging that the situation has deteriorated this week.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, told Ukrainian NV Radio the situation was “critical”, with fighting going on “round the clock”. The past few days have seen alarm in Russia at its own potential vulnerabilities after Moscow reported a number of drone attacks on targets deep within Russia, followed by what it said was an armed cross-border raid on Thursday.
President Vladimir Putin was shown on television yesterday telling his Security Council to step up “anti-terrorism measures”. Mr Zelensky, for his part, visited wounded soldiers at a military hospital in Lviv. One, shaking the president's hand from bed, apologised that he could not stand up. “That’s OK,” Mr Zelensky said. “The time will come and you will rise.”
The German chancellor Olaf Scholz was due to meet US president Joe Biden at the White House to discuss additional military aid to Ukraine. Germany makes the Leopard tanks promised in January and they are expected to be the core of a new Ukrainian armoured force.
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